“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
This past spring, I had a conversation with a fellow on the train as the Cardinal Line coursed through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He was a lapsed Episcopalian, which I considered rather redundant. We had a pleasant talk about religion wherein he mentioned doctrines that troubled him and I defended them in ways that made them less objectionable to him. I then wanted to share something about the Christian religion that I found problematic, but as I began to speak, I discovered an appropriate rejoinder. It was an odd experience. Am I an apologist in spite of myself?
I had wanted to complain about the repeated injunctions in the scriptures to believe. My skeptical side has always disliked these passages, finding them inexplicable and even embarrassing. I do not want to believe; I want to understand. Moreover, I want solid reasons to accompany that understanding. Exhortations to belief struck me as a fraud’s gimmick to sucker in folks. I never judged the evangelists as snake oil peddlers, but certain passages in the bible made me uncomfortable. Paul and Silas preach, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Mark writes, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” There are scores upon scores of such examples, and they are targets for skeptics who care not for blind belief. I am sympathetic to them.
As I was relaying these objections to my fellow Amtrak passenger, a simple explanation came. My interlocutor never knew that my objections were not rhetorical. This unforeseen answer reminded me an earlier objection that I had about the anthropomorphism in the scriptures’ depiction of a wrathful, vindictive God. When that thought bothered me, I happened to come across some patristic texts that addressed the problem, though I do not remember which. The basic idea was that the scriptures are written for men—for their edification and for their salvation. Hence, the inspired texts speak to men at their level. Portrayals of a wrathful, jealous God do not depict God as he is but rather address us pastorally. Most of us have had loving fathers who corrected us. Fathers employ anger, disappointment, approval, sadness, and joy in pedagogy, and we grow up with an intimate recognition of these emotional tools. Holy writ taps into our human psychology to instruct us in the ways of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but it is not the end of it.
Similarly, it occurred to me that the recurring invitations in the bible to believe may also be pastoral. Rather than seedy priestcraft, the call to believe is like a physician’s request that a patient trust him. Unless the patient believes that the physician is able to help him, he will not likely follow the doctor’s advice. Trust necessarily precedes the assistance that the physician may offer. Likewise, Christ the Healer offers us medicine, but we must first accept that it is medicine rather than poison. We must have faith in the physician. This is so obvious to me now, and it is likely a commonplace thought among Christians, but I never realized it before. One must believe before one knows in almost any discipline, since one must trust his teacher before he attains knowledge. How much more necessary is trust when we are dealing not with mere knowledge but with salvation?